The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is soon to host the premiere of a captivating documentary. It explores the life and enduring legacy of Sinn Sisamouth, affectionately titled the “King of Khmer Music”. This is an eagerly awaited celebration of Cambodian culture and music.

Chris G Parkhurst is the director, with his wife Stephanie Vincenti acting as producer. The film intends to capture the profound love and respect Cambodians globally still have for their legendary singer-songwriter, who dominated the music scene from the 1950s to 1970s.

“I wanted to tell this story of Cambodia’s undying and universal love for Sinn Sisamouth and his music,” explains Parkhurst.

The film, which took Parkhurst a decade to create, investigates Sinn Sisamouth’s monumental legacy. Despite his life being brutally ended during the 1975-1979 Cambodian Genocide, his music continues to inspire the global Cambodian diaspora.

The genesis of this heartfelt tribute dates back to Parkhurst’s first visit to Cambodia in 2004, while working on a different documentary. Fascinated by the deep-seated appreciation for Sinn Sisamouth and the rich Cambodian culture, Parkhurst found an enduring connection.

“I fell in love with the medium of documentary and the people and culture of Cambodia,” he affirms.

Initially envisaged as a short film, the documentary ‘Elvis of Cambodia: The Legacy of Sinn Sisamouth’ became a more ambitious endeavour as Parkhurst delved into Sisamouth’s life. Across his travels, Parkhurst met numerous individuals who not only knew of Sisamouth but revered him.

“To capture Cambodia’s history, we took an unconventional approach, relying on extensive filming and the first-hand accounts of those who experienced the Khmer Rouge era,” Parkhurst disclosed,

He added: “Their stories became our primary source, providing invaluable insights into the country’s past”.

Sisamouth’s music, Parkhurst elaborates, acted as a crucial link connecting Cambodians to a past free from war and the devastating genocide that later swept their country. His melodies serve as a poignant connection to the Cambodia they cherish in their hearts, taking them back to a period of innocence and prolific artistic expression.

“Sinn Sisamouth’s music is a direct connection to a Cambodia from before the war and the genocide,” Parkhurst states.

A pivotal part in the creation of the film was played by the Sinn family, particularly early supporter Chanchhaya, and Sinn Sisamouth’s granddaughter, Setsochhata. Their unwavering support, the film director acknowledges, was crucial to the project’s fruition.

A poster of Sinn Sisamouth documentary ‘Elvis of Cambodia’ to see world premier on July 25 in Melbourne, Australia. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The joy of filming in Cambodia, where people genuinely show friendliness and a willingness to engage in conversation, was another highlight for Parkhurst. He notes that even in a rural village, striking up a conversation can result in people going out of their way to assist the film.

The approach of involving as many interviewees as possible from the outset, extended to the documentary’s research too.

“We captured a handful of people’s direct connection to Sinn Sisamouth and his music. We let their stories do the talking,” Parkhurst and Vincenti divulge.

The duo added: “We let the music do the talking. Scenes are driven by his music. And scenes are driven by the personal stories”.

Engaging conversations with music expert Sam-ang Sam, filmmaker Panh Rithy, and Sun Chanthol, then-Minister of Commerce and a dedicated fan of Sinn Sisamouth, brought further depth to the narrative.

However, a notable challenge was the scarcity of archival photos or footage of Sinn Sisamouth, most of which were destroyed during the war. This issue was carefully considered in light of the Cambodian audience’s desire to experience Sinn Sisamouth’s presence in the film.

“To overcome this challenge, we made an early decision to portray aspects of Sinn Sisamouth’s life through animation,” Parkhurst discloses.

They collaborated with Rounh Studio, Phnom Penh artists, to create animated representations of Sinn Sisamouth. The result was both beautiful and memorable, capturing the essence of Sinn Sisamouth and helping to evoke the emotions and connection Parkhurst had personally experienced with him.

Above all, this film was crafted with Cambodians and Cambodia in mind. Their intention was to create a love story for Cambodia, something that would make Cambodians proud and serve as a heartfelt way of expressing gratitude to a nation that significantly impacted their lives.

As “Elvis of Cambodia: The Legacy of Sinn Sisamouth” gets ready for its world premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, Parkhurst harbours two primary hopes. He aspires for Cambodians to feel pride in the film’s endeavour to honour Sinn Sisamouth’s legacy and aims to showcase a more positive view of Cambodia, highlighting its vibrant culture and resilient people.

“This is one of the more prestigious documentary festivals and we are so excited to be a part of it,” Parkhurst enthused.

“It will be on Tuesday, July 25. And it is our hope to pack the theatre with Cambodians living in the Melbourne area! Please help us spread the word about this important event,” the filmmaker emphasised.

Following this, they plan a North American premiere in the U.S., accompanied by a mini tour. They hope to return to Cambodia next year and organise outdoor screenings across various provinces, a long-held dream of Parkhurst.

The director remains undecided on future film projects, though he does have a few ideas in development. Given that his works typically explore different cultures, he anticipates another international filming venture in the near future.